Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: A sigh of relief after a week of brinkmanship


Editor's Viewpoint

It was a week which will go down in history as the tale of two telephone calls. One, on Monday, from DUP leader Arlene Foster rejecting a deal on the border left the Prime Minister red-faced and floundering on the European stage. Another, in the early hours of yesterday, from the PM to Mrs Foster sealed a revised document which allows the UK and the EU to move on to the vital and substantive Brexit discussions on trade.

It showed that when push comes to shove, nobody does ambiguity like the EU. The deal has achieved what was thought impossible, satisfying the PM, the EU, the Irish Government, the DUP and even the most ardent Brexiteers.

Perhaps deal is too strong a word for what was agreed; essentially, it was a form of words which opened the way to allow talks to begin on the issues at the heart of Brexit.

What it also achieved was a change in the mood music, which had threatened to sour the painstakingly built good relationships between Dublin, London and Belfast. The DUP and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had been in particularly caustic form over the past couple of weeks, but yesterday the Irish leader was at pains to point out there was no hidden motive - and certainly not a back-door promotion of Irish unity - in its hardline stance on keeping the border as open as possible.

It was not what the DUP said yesterday that signalled a thaw in this cross-border frost, but rather the fact that the Irish government was hardly mentioned.

Instead, and with some justification, the party was keen to herald its achievement in ensuring there should be no impediments to trade within the UK and that attempts to give Northern Ireland some kind of special status, which would dilute the union, had been thwarted.

The DUP has used its leverage at the heart of government well. It took a firm stand on what it saw as a core red line, but avoided overplaying its influence by accepting a document which it recognises as imperfect but capable of being tweaked as discussions continue.

The past week has shown just what unionism means. The link with the rest of the UK is paramount in the minds of those who call themselves unionists. It does not matter that the constitutional position of the province within the UK is protected by the Good Friday Agreement. Anything which even remotely smacks of changing that relationship raises fears and then hackles. Both the British and Irish governments have been left in no doubt about that.

Yet it is encouraging that the tense relationships north to south and east to west have not been allowed to fester. That could do enormous damage in the long term, not least to the body politic in Northern Ireland, which is already in an induced coma.

It was noticeable that in every statement in London, Brussels and Dublin, the unionist position was noted and remarked upon, even though the DUP's support for Brexit puts it in a minority position in the province. What that proves is that unless you are in some position of power in such high-octane negotiations, you are voiceless.

The only person to really take on board any nationalist concerns was the Taoiseach, and it is shameful that he, rather than a duly elected Northern Ireland politician, functioning as part of a devolved administration, should have to be the one to speak for that section of the community.

It is also hugely ironic that the agreed document gives a strong role to a Stormont Assembly and Executive on shaping how Brexit can be implemented. Pragmatism now has to take over from idealism on all sides.

It is imperative that the political parties in Northern Ireland find their own form of words to restore devolution and work to gain a consensus on how to ensure Brexit works for everyone, giving business the widest possible marketplace and making the province an attractive place for inward investment, as well as ensuring that north-south and east-west relationships remain as unaffected as possible.

This has been a remarkable week in Anglo-Irish-EU politics, moving from dogmatic stalemate to pragmatic agreement. That has been met with a huge sigh of relief all round, but a little phrase uttered yesterday - nothing is agreed until everything is agreed - shows that the next year will lay bare the contradictions inherent in yesterday's document.

The devil is in the detail and there may yet be the devil of a row before Brexit becomes reality.

Belfast Telegraph

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